Lydia Bigley

Journalist | Photographer | Travel Blogger

the lesbian peril – homophobia in women’s sport

As the British Olympic team prepares for Beijing, LYDIA BIGLEY asks why lesbophobia is still holding back women’s sport

An image of two women playing a football match

Forget about politics, investment banking, and engineering. When it comes to career advancement and opportunities, there’s one area in which women are miles behind their male counterparts – the world of professional sports. When the world’s biggest sporting event, the Olympic Games, kicks into action this August in Beijing, it will offer a rare opportunity for women athletes to get as much media coverage as the men. But don’t expect to see anyone waving a rainbow flag at the opening ceremony; according to Miriam Wilkens, head of media for the British Olympic team, sexuality is not an issue. ‘It is a private matter for the athlete. It is of no concern to us,’ says Wilkins. Yet with so few out lesbians in sport, is homosexuality still the elephant in the room? Women compete equally in all of the Olympic sports (with the exception of boxing), and their achievements are celebrated as much as the men’s, but outside this ‘amateur’ tournament they still face a hard slog to be recognised for their sporting capabilities as opposed to their bra size. The idea that all successful sportswomen are lesbians is something that the media has promoted for many years. However, sexuality seems to be less of an issue nowadays than moving outside what is an ‘acceptable’ female gender identity. According to a recent report, Barriers to women and girls’ participation in sport and physical activity by the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), a charity that aims to get more girls and women involved in sport, ‘It is just not seen as feminine or “girly” to be interested in sport and, for many girls, being sporty is felt to be at odds with femininity.’ It’s this perceived ‘lack of femininity’ and a dearth of positive coverage of women’s sports that not only stops women getting involved in sport, but also puts off lesbian sportswomen from coming out.

Huge disparities in salaries, sponsorship and media coverage, along with perceived negative stereotypes, mean that elite female athletes face a constant struggle. Reporting on women’s sporting achievements is generally confined to a few tiny column inches among the acres of coverage on the men’s events. The men’s football World Cup attracts billions of TV viewers worldwide, while the women’s barely warrants network TV coverage. The WSF reports that, ‘On average, only 5% of sports coverage in national and local print media is dedicated to women’s sport. This is significant because the media plays a central role in informing our knowledge, opinions and attitudes about women and sport, which, in turn, influence participation levels.’ The paucity of media coverage is further exacerbated by the fact that the majority of sports journalists and sports editors are men.

The proliferation in dedicated sports channels has provided a bigger platform to showcase women’s sports with, for example, the 2006 Women’s Rugby World Cup being shown on Sky Sports 2 and 3. However, these channels are still only viewed by a minority of serious sports enthusiasts and offer nothing like the coverage of the terrestrial channels. It’s particularly difficult for women involved in team sports to garner media interest. Even at the Olympics, most of the reportage will concentrate on the individual competitors on the track and in the pool, with team sports such as football, hockey, and volleyball taking a back seat.

When women athletes do get some media interest, it’s very often for all the wrong reasons. The sexualisation of women’s sports is something the media is only too happy to perpetrate; tennis star Maria Sharapova has had far more comment about her looks than her performance on the court. Weekly free sports magazine Sport, which is distributed around London, rarely gives any serious space to women’s sports. Instead, buried at the back of the magazine, it features the profiles of women who often have tenuous links to sports and are nearly always posed scantily clad. Recent profiles have included a former ‘Page 3′ model-turned-darts commentator, and several ‘WAGs’.

When British sprint cyclist and Beijing Olympic hopeful Victoria Pendleton appeared naked on the cover of The Observer Sport Monthly magazine in March 2008, the article was at pains to emphasise her femininity. It described her as ‘lithe, petite and unashamedly feminine’, and praised the fact that she has kept her hair long even though it ‘may be a hindrance’ to her performance. The article made sure to include that Pendleton recently had a ‘manicure at the Lowry Hotel’s spa, a little luxury that means a great deal because, come competition time, she won’t be allowed to have nails long enough to paint.’ A Google search of the star’s name brings up more results about ‘being a babe’ and posing nude for the cover than it does about her sporting successes. The reader can’t help feeling she hasn’t done female sports stars any favours by appearing in various other glamorous photo shoots.

Far more shocking was a recent article in the Chicago Tribune newspaper, claiming that the WNBA (the US professional Women’s National Basketball Association) is offering its rookie players ‘hour-long courses on make-up and fashion tips’ as part of their induction into WNBA life. The emphasis here is on trying to ensure that the players maintain as ‘feminine’ a persona as possible off the court. ‘It’s all contributing to how to be a professional,’ WNBA president Donna Orender said of the orientation classes. ‘I do believe there’s more focus on a woman’s physical appearance. Men are straight out accepted for their athletic ability.’

In the article, Susan Ziegler, a Cleveland State professor of sports psychology, says ‘No. 1 is, of course, the need for the image of WNBA players to be seen as real women. That comes from the lesbian homophobia that surrounds women in sports in general.’ She goes on to say; ‘Once you begin to worry about how the person looks as opposed to how she plays, you’ve crossed the line into dangerous play. We’re not really focused on marketing them as athletes, but as feminine objects.’

When talking to DIVA last month, professional boxer Laura Saperstein spoke about the difficulties of being taken seriously as a female athlete. ‘In all areas of entertainment there is pressure on women to look attractive, and I don’t agree with it,’ she says. She finds the coverage of women’s boxing that focuses on how lovely they look but says nothing about the fight very irritating. ‘The most important thing is what they are wearing!’ she says.

‘The culture of sport that assumes that a woman can’t be feminine and still have muscles, or be strong and fit, is one that needs to be changed. We need more images in the press of successful, happy sportswomen – both straight and gay – not just the “culturally accepted” good-looking female athletes,’ says Chris Lillistone, WSF insight and innovation manager.

Of the tiny proportion of high-profile female sports star that do come out, such as cyclist Judith Arndt, tennis player Amélie Mauresmo, golfer Rosie Jones and, of course, queer pioneer Martina Navratilova, the vast majority of them are involved in individual as opposed to team sports. It’s still considered ‘easier’ for individual athletes to come out. When DIVA interviewed Navratilova in 2005, she concurred: ‘I’m lucky that I was in an individual sport, because in a team sport being gay can really get in the way, even for women.’ The most obvious example is in women’s football. The FA steers clear of making any reference to its lesbian players, and when DIVA spoke to England coach Hope Powell in October 2005 she said, ‘There’s always been that stereotyping of female footballers as butch, dykey and unattractive, so maybe it’s just best left alone.’ She then refused to be drawn into any further debate about lesbians in the game.

There are no ‘out and proud’ lesbian football stars on the current English team or any of the other prominent teams. As the most popular sport in Britain, there is plenty of lesbian participation at grass roots level, but the continuing negative lesbian stereotyping of sportswomen today means that, outside of their teammates and friends, they remain tight-lipped about their sexuality.

So how do lesbian footballers feel about homophobia? Goalkeeper Andie Worrall from Manchester, who has played for Stockport County, Everton, Liverpool, Leeds, and the Welsh national team, and who will be playing with Manchester City’s women’s team next season, is critical of the way the FA has promoted the English Women’s Football team in the past. ‘If you look at the England team, they only use the pretty girls on [promotional] posters, the ones that don’t look like lesbians. They want to advertise the sport as not being associated with lesbians, when they should be doing more to make people feel comfortable about being gay.

‘It’s ridiculous that some people think playing football will make you a lesbian, she continues. ‘[If you’re gay,] you’re going to be gay whether you play football or tiddlywinks.’ However, she does think it’s easier to come out these days: ‘I’m out and I’ve never had any problems. In the teams I’ve played for recently, everyone is out.’

The FA recently launched a campaign to tackle homophobia in football under the Football for All programme but, to date, it has largely focused on reducing abusive chanting on the terraces and pitches of the men’s Premier League clubs. It mentions nothing about the specific problems lesbian football players face, although the FA’s website states it ‘will work to ensure every door is open for members of the gay and lesbian communities to participate and progress within football.’ The FA’s equality manager, Lucy Faulkner, is eager to point out that the FA wants to support its lesbian players. ‘If women in football are receiving homophobic abuse, then I would encourage them to report it direct to the FA. We will investigate all incidents and take action where homophobic abuse is proven,’ says Faulkner. She also says that ‘any player that choses to come out would be fully supported by both the FA and the Professional Footballers Association (PFA).’

What advice would the FA give to younger lesbians about how to deal with discrimination they might face when playing on football teams? ‘Any young woman who has an issue with discrimination can, and should, report it to the FA. We have a clear equality policy that includes sexual orientation. No-one should be discriminated against because of their sexuality,’ adds Faulkner.

Of course, these issues aren’t just confined to the UK. US gay sports site has reported on the homophobia that exists in all levels of American team sports. However, the US has the benefit of having some ‘out’ high-profile team sport stars, such as three-times Olympic gold medallist Sheryl Swoopes of the WNBA, who came out publicly in 2005.

With the absence of coverage, negative stereotypes and reduced access to many sports, it’s no surprise that women’s sports are also hugely under-funded. Despite football being ‘officially the biggest female team sport in England’, elite women’s football is an amateur sport played at a professional level. While professional male footballers lead a charmed life, driving large cars and wearing designer clothes for a few hours a week’s training, the women are lucky if they get expenses. Some of the Arsenal Women’s Football team earn their money by – literally – cleaning the men’s teams’ boots. Their coach, Vic Akers, said in a recent OSM article, ‘Finances for women’s football are precarious at best, and even those teams informally tied to professional men’s clubs are reliant on a goodwill that is often lacking.’

There is talk from the FA of a summer league, to avoid fixtures clashing with the men’s league. As with any team, the lack of facilities, equipment and regular competitive matches makes it more difficult to compete at an international level. The problem of funding is experienced worldwide, with Sweden being the only European country with a professional women’s team, Umea. The situation in the US is only marginally better. WNBA players receive only a fraction of the salaries of their male counterparts, and in 2003 the professional Women’s United Soccer Association collapsed. However, a new league called Women’s Pro Soccer is set to return next April.

It seems that the only way forward for lesbians in sport is to be brave, to come out and be themselves. A lack of openly-lesbian role models allows the outdated negative stereotypes about sportswomen to prevail, which, in turn, affects the coverage and accessibility of women’s sports. Openly-lesbian sports commentator Clare Balding says, ‘I would love to see an honest study of how many gay women are involved, either playing, coaching or officiating in sport. I feel it would produce a very positive result, in that sport does tend to attract gay women, just as the arts does gay men. Lesbians, as a group, shouldn’t be defensive about this. It is something to be celebrated, and the sooner that happens, the sooner the world will get over themselves.’

Published in Diva magazine, August 2008, issue 147

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